The latest Christmas production at the New Vic, Newcastle, is a re-telling of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows — 110 years old this year — the tale of anthropomorphised animals in a pastoral version of ye olde England as progress, in the form of motor cars, arrives.
It’s the best Christmas show the New Vic has put on for some years, with less in the way of aerial gymnastics but more accomplished musicianship from the actors.
For research we watched the 1983 Cosgrove Hall Films’ version of the book (which won a Bafta and an international Emmy), with the voices including David Jason, Ian Carmichael and Michael Hordern. (Later a cartoon series, with Stone Roses guitarist John Squire working as a set artist, according to Wikipedia).
Assuming the film is honest to the book, the New Vic play is equally close. It opens with Mole (Alicia McKenzie) waking up from hibernation and going for a wander, meeting Ratty (Richard Keightley). He takes Mole off to meet Toad (a well-cast Rob Witcomb) via the otters.
Mole spring cleans
Mole takes them off on a carriage ride before his fateful meeting with a motorcar. Matthew Burns is particularly enjoyable as the horse.
In this first part, Ratty delivers all the famous Ratty lines, about water and boats — “absolutely nothing is half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” — and indeed the river is central to the first section of the play. Hi-tech lighting means a realistic river is projected on the stage but more impressive — and we’re not sure if it’s deliberate, but suspect it is — were the set changes, which are rapid and see props flow on and off the stage (via cast members) like a river.
Once Toad gets his hands on a car, trouble ensues and his friends head off into the Wild Wood to meet Badger (RSC veteran Emma Manton), who has brains and regularly quotes Cicero and Shakespeare (Badger, not Miss Manton, though she may also do so).
Nothin’ so fine as messin’ about on boats
The baddies — the weasels and other ne’er-do-well animals — appear, led by Fox (Kieran Buckeridge, who earned a round of applause for ad libbing during a minor set failure). Toad proves deaf to good advice and ends up in the clink, before being famously rescued. After a dramatic escape (using two ladders, seats and tap-dancing at the New Vic, but we won’t spoil one of the more clever scenes) he finds the weasels have taken up residence in Toad Hall. There is a brief battle, but the weasels turn out to proto-hoodies and despite their scary looks only want to be loved. In best Shakespearian style, there’s a happy song at the end and everyone leaves smiling.
All the actors are excellent — all were convincing as watery-dwelling rodents and other mammals — but even when not acting they’re playing instruments to a high standard, with flute, double bass, violins, trombone, guitar and sax all figuring (we think, we lost the list we made). It’s unfair to single anyone out.
Having said that, Rob Witcomb is very good as Toad, and Alicia McKenzie makes a good Mole. Witcomb has something of Kenneth Branagh about him, while Kieran Buckeridge’s Fox had some of the raffish charm of Nigel Havers. Emma Manton as badger has a strong presence (and some of the best lines).
There’s a sub-plot involving the otters, and Sophia Hatfield plays a strong Mrs O, Laura Soper being good as young otter Portly.
Praise also to artistic director Theresa Heskins whose adaptation works well, to Matt Baker for his score and set designer Laura Willstead for those liquid changes of scene.
Wind In The Willows runs to Saturday, 26th January and rumour has it that many pre-Christmas shows are booked. Tickets cost £15.50-£24.50 from Congleton TIC (call 01260 271095), or the New Vic box office on 01782 717962, or online at newvictheatre.org.uk
(Photos: Andrew Billington).